Our other literary star

Minnesota native Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel Prize after a Pulitzer dustup

Portrait of Lewis, circa 1930 / Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

This past October iconic Minnesota musician Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize in Literature for his work, the first musician to ever win the award.

While only eight other U.S.-born writers have claimed the literature prize since it began in 1901, Dylan isn’t the first Minnesotan to receive the high honor.

In 1930, Sinclair Lewis became the first-ever American to take home the Nobel’s lit prize.

Born in 1885 in Sauk Centre, Lewis topped the bestseller lists throughout the 1920s.

His Minnesota roots often influenced his short stories and novels, but he didn’t always portray his upbringing in the best light.

Lewis, circa 1925 / Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

In his sixth novel, Main Street, published in 1920, he took shots at his background, satirizing the American ideal of perfect small-town life.

His Main Street protagonist, Carol, finds provincialism and small-mindedness rather than a quaint, perfect town of good neighbors in the fictional location of Gopher Prairie, Minn.

Lewis is said to have begun Main Street one summer in 1905 while home in Sauk Centre during his college years at Yale, feeling keenly aware of the cultural differences between his college life out East and his hometown.

It took years of writing on and off to finish the novel, but he felt constantly compelled to tell the story: He once wrote more than 200,000 words for his manuscript in just 14 weeks.

But Lewis, whose writing career had just begun, also worried about how the book would be received. He feared the book’s subversive takedown of small-town life might be a turnoff to the magazine publishers he’d come to rely on for paychecks.

When Main Street finally hit shelves in October 1920, glowing reviews from critics started to roll in, and writers such as Upton Sinclair, H.G. Wells and F. Scott Fitzgerald sang its praises. A New York Tribune writer called it “the best book I have read in as long as I can recall.”

Main Street by Sinclair Lewis / Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

Not ‘wholesome’ enough

Main Street quickly became the book to buy for the 1920 holiday season, and by January 1921, more than 100,000 copies had sold.

“In the year 1921, if you visited the parlor of almost any boarding house, you would see a copy of Main Street — standing between the Bible and Ben-Hur,” one writer said.

The book had clearly struck a chord with the American public, many of whom had recently ventured out of their small towns for the first time during World War I.

One critic wrote, “By 1920, the restless minds of the writers of new books were getting a response from restless men and women who had been figuratively or literally grabbed out of their Main Streets.”

Riding high on the book’s success, Lewis attended society dinners and White House receptions and lectured across the country.

But when the fiction judges of the Pulitzer Prize recommended the 1921 award go to Main Street, the trustees of Columbia University — who made the final decision — overturned the judges’ choice and presented the award to Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence.

The Pulitzer had a requirement that the award go to a book “which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life,” and the trustees felt Main Street and its criticism of rural American values didn’t meet the requirement.

Main Street by Sinclair Lewis — which criticized the provincialism and small-mindedness of rural Minnesota — was denied a Pulitzer Prize in 1921 because it wasn’t “wholesome” enough. Arrowsmith, first published by Sinclair Lewis in 1925, won the 1926 Pulitzer Prize, which Lewis declined. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

Onward and upward

The snub stuck with Lewis, even as his next two novels — Babbitt (1922) and Arrowsmith (1925) — each sold over 100,000 copies.

In 1926, the Pulitzer committee chose Arrowsmith for the fiction award, but Lewis refused to accept it, the first person ever to do so.

He wrote a letter to the committee, calling out its decision on Main Street and his disagreement with the “wholesome” requirement, and the story made front-page headlines around the country.

A few years later, in November 1930, the Swedish Academy informed Lewis that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

When the story broke, reporters were eager to know if the author would refuse the Nobel. Lewis quickly announced he would accept the award, which he felt was more focused on an author’s literary merit than the Pulitzer.

However, some felt that the Nobel’s nearly-$50,000 prize — in comparison with the Pulitzer’s mere $1,000 prize — was the author’s true reason for accepting.

“It is a good deal easier to reconcile one’s artistic conscience to a $46,350 prize than it is to one which happens to be, under the terms of the Pulitzer award, exactly $45,350 less,” sniped the Minneapolis Tribune.

On Dec. 10, Lewis received the prize in Stockholm. As he presented the award, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy applauded Lewis’ work for the very thing the Pulitzers had faulted him for, announcing, “The new great American literature has started with national self-criticism.”

Rebel From Main Street by Richard R. Lingeman

Read more

Learn about the life and work of Sinclair Lewis in the Minnesota Historical Society’s biography Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street by Richard Lingeman.

Lauren Peck is a media relations and social media associate for the Minnesota Historical Society.